By Thomas M. Puhr.
The scariest thing in Huesera is not the ghostly bone woman, but the all-too-real fear that one may choose the wrong path when faced with one of life’s many forked roads.”
Among a throng of worshippers, a young woman climbs the stone steps leading to a gigantic statue of the Virgin Mary. People sing and pray over booming fireworks. It is the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The young woman pauses, breathless, and stares up at the statue’s head; she doesn’t seem all that impressed. She reaches the top and joins her family. Her mother makes the sign of the cross over her stomach and recites the Hail Mary. Clearly, this trek was made to placate a devout parent.
The young woman is named Valeria (Natalia Solián), and she wants to have a baby. At least that’s what she tells her husband, Raúl (Alfonso Dosal), and anyone else who asks about her “ticking clock.” When she gets pregnant, both sides of the family are elated. “Our Virgin performed a miracle on you,” her mother, Maricarmen (Aida López), declares. Only Valeria’s older sister, who has two kids, sees the doubt beneath her sibling’s pleasant exterior. “You’re not a kid person,” she says. “How could she not be?” Maricarmen responds, incredulous. Valeria stares at the table.
Writer-director Michelle Garza Cervera accomplishes something rare in these opening scenes of her feature debut, 2022’s Huesera (the unfortunate subtitle The Bone Woman has been added for this release, since the film is based on the Mexican myth of a bone collector). Like the best horror, its exposition is engaging and spiked with genuine dread; rather than being handled as a necessary slog before the mayhem can begin, it subtly lays out complex character dynamics, themes, and symbols. This filmmaker understands that horror must get under the skin and engage the intellect before it can properly scare you.
Like the best horror, the film’s exposition is engaging and spiked with genuine dread; rather than being handled as a necessary slog before the mayhem can begin, it subtly lays out complex character dynamics, themes, and symbols.
Valeria’s fears and reservations about the pregnancy are made manifest through disturbing visions she has of a pale, faceless woman. Some of these sequences are rendered effectively; an early scene in which she witnesses the mysterious woman jumping from an apartment balcony stands out. Others recycle stale jump scares (the figure’s disjointed, spider-like crawl smacks of early aughts J-horror) or motifs (dogs barking at nothing, creepy shadows flitting across peepholes). However, a climactic sequence in a forest teeming with contorted, naked figures – which swarm over Valeria like insects – redeems any initial clunkiness.
None of the above would work, though, if not for Solián’s standout performance as the uncertain mother-to-be. Her increasingly cutting responses to others’ commentary on her pregnancy reveal a norm-defying, progressive-thinking woman whose placid façade is beginning to crack. Consider an exchange in which Raúl hesitates to have sex with her for fear of hurting the baby. “But there’s no baby yet,” she assures her husband. “Of course there is!” he responds, laughing and kissing her stomach. It’s an unmelodramatic confrontation that illustrates people’s vastly different conceptions of when life begins. It also obliquely questions Christianity’s sanctification of pregnancy.
But Cervera knows better than to pass judgment on any of her characters. Though a bit of a traditionalist, Raúl is a tender, loving husband whose concern for his wife’s well-being shines through. While the film occasionally nods to its classic predecessors (an abrasive, jazzy portion of the soundtrack calls Krzysztof Komeda’s work for Rosemary’s Baby, 1968, to mind), Raúl is the opposite of the genre’s many Guy Woodhouses. He’s a nice guy. We like him, as does his wife, but we sense their relationship sprang from an obedience to tradition rather than passion. They get along and seem happy, but is that enough reason to have a child? Is it fair that Valeria must lock up her cherished carpentry tools (the chemicals she works with wouldn’t be good for the child, a doctor warns her), while Raúl can still go out and play with his musician friends?
Our protagonist is not exempt from this frank characterization, either. When Octavia (Mayra Batalla) – a friend and love interest from Valeria’s rebellious teenage years – reenters the picture, our protagonist’s confusion intensifies. Should she honor her family’s wishes and expectations or forge a new path with the woman she’s always loved? Would it be selfish to do the latter, given her new parental responsibilities? These are difficult questions, and Cervera refuses easy answers. She allows life’s ambiguities and messiness to enter the narrative. That none of her (human) characters are overtly good or evil only makes the difficult decisions they make all the more painful. Such nuance is rare in horror (or any film about marriage, for that matter).
The supernatural elements’ origins are never explained; thankfully, we’re spared an overwritten monologue about a centuries’ old family curse or a demonic entity’s modus operandi. Such details prove extraneous; the scariest thing in Huesera is not the ghostly bone woman, but the all-too-real fear that one may choose the wrong path when faced with one of life’s many forked roads.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.